If Scarface (1983) was Brian De Palma's filmic gangland playground, a grotesque amplification of the Hawks/Hecht original that got lost in the its main character's bacchanalian universe delighting in, rather than cautioning against, its amoral excess then Carlito's Way (1993) is the director's somber, heartfelt penance. Sadly, this is also probably why the film has never acquired much in the way of a cult following, which is a shame since, much like Tony Montana in Scarface, its protagonist, Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino), roars to life at the film's close, but this time in a much nobler hail of gunfire. These structural similarities aside, their story arcs couldn't be more different. The fictional creation of novelist Edwin Torres, Carlito is a legendary Spanish Harlem smack dealer who's fresh out of the joint, trying to go straight if only the streets where he made his reputation would let him. Indeed, such total extrication is never easy for a player of his former stature, and, if anything, his lengthy incarceration has only made Carlito that much more respected. It's this enduring legacy as a badass that compels his cousin to bring Carlito along for a routine drug delivery that seems poised to go bad from the minute they set foot in the dealer's lair. Bad for Carlito, but wonderful for the audience, who are treated to a classic, slow building suspense set piece courtesy of a master filmmaker, culminating in a ferocious exchange of gunfire that indelibly establishes Carlito as a man every bit as ruthless and deadly as his reputation. It's precisely this kind of situation that Carlito would do anything to avoid, which is why, at the behest of his friend and attorney, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), he leaps at the opportunity to run a local nightclub, bearing the unsubtle moniker "El Paraiso," as a means of accumulating the $75,000 he needs to buy into a car-rental business in the Caribbean. This is one half of his dream; the other half is his ex-girlfriend Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), who once aspired to a serious ballet career, but is now relegated to grinding away on the stage of a midtown strip joint. Though she initially resists Carlito's entreaties to start a new life with him, Gail begins to discover in his dream a newfound hope for a better life outside of the crushing disappointment of her own professional failure.
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It's a touching notion that endears the audience to both characters, raising the stakes to a resonant, personal level. This is when De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp begin tightening the screws on Carlito, who is fond of reminding us via his unusually effective voiceovers that he just has to keep all of the angles straight to get out alive. But when Kleinfeld starts acting erratically due to a worsening coke habit, Carlito's allegiances begin to blur. He's also forced to contend with the young pups like Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), who, if they can't win Carlito's favor, have no compunction over rubbing this legendary figure out just to make their name. As these forces close in on Carlito, the film gains an exhilarating momentum, building into an unbearably tense 20-minute chase sequence that stretches from 125th Street to Grand Central Station. As emotionally charged as it is brilliantly conceived and executed, this is not just De Palma at his best, but, for the way it weds the director's technical facility with his criminally under-appreciated thematic poignancy, filmmaking at its most transcendent. There is something more than manhood and kingdom at stake in Carlito's Way; it's the idea of not merely getting over but getting out. But such hopeful yearning pales in comparison to the dead-end licentiousness offered up by a film like Scarface. One can't very well revel in wistfulness. As is to be expected in a De Palma film, the performances are excellent across the board save for the female. But Miller, much like Nancy Allen before her, proves a serviceable muse without being glaringly awful. She's also aided immensely by Pacino, whose typically incendiary performance makes everyone around him that much better. Penn, with his coked-out variation of Alan Dershowitz, is also excellent as Kleinfeld. Universal presents Carlito's Way in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include Laurent Bouzereau's excellent documentary "The Making of Carlito's Way," in which the filmmakers lucidly make the case for the movie's deserved place in the gangster-film pantheon. (Some may bristle at De Palma's immodest assessment of his work on the picture, but there's little denying that he's walked the walk here.) Also on board are a stills gallery and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.